You Are Probably Misreading Frost’s ‘Road Not Taken’ Poem, So Says Frost

There ARE two roads, though, right?

Oh, what I would give to be teaching high school English right now! After reading this excellent essay in The Paris Review (which I found via The Atlantic whose work in education and culture I cannot recommend enough), I was reminded of just how valuable the re-reading of poetry and literature can be. Not “reading.” Reading is for psyshometricians and clerics. No, in the classroom as in the world, it is re-reading that really matters. That’s where questions form and discussion ensues. Were I still Mr. Lynch teaching 9th grade English in Room 305 on West 18th Street in Manhattan, I would have copies of the following excerpt ready to go tomorrow:

And almost everyone gets it wrong. This is the most remarkable thing about “The Road Not Taken”—not its immense popularity (which is remarkable enough), but the fact that it is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons. It’s worth pausing here to underscore a truth so obvious that it is often taken for granted: Most widely celebrated artistic projects are known for being essentially what they purport to be. When we play “White Christmas” in December, we correctly assume that it’s a song about memory and longing centered around the image of snow falling at Christmas. When we read Joyce’s Ulysses, we correctly assume that it’s a complex story about a journey around Dublin as filtered through many voices and styles. A cultural offering may be simple or complex, cooked or raw, but its audience nearly always knows what kind of dish is being served.

Frost’s poem turns this expectation on its head. Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

You mean there isn’t a road less taken?!? That’s right, class. Now debate and discuss amongst yourselves.

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